Faces of Power and the Press

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Faces of Power and the Press

Every government falls into the temptation to control the press. Even the more democratic governments do not abandon the idea of controlling the press and of taking advantage of its influence. Military regimes use direct and physical means to control the press, but the so-called "democratic" and "people's" governments attempt to control or manipulate the press through indirect and silent means. The Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, established during the Cold War period to defend American-style values, warned in its standards of journalism that man's desire to repress dissenting opinions is deeply rooted and probably won't be eradicated.

Political power's control of the press has two faces: potential and actual control, and direct and indirect control. Once a political ideology gains power, it tries to drive out of the news all the facts that challenge the ideology. The press also has two faces. It adopts a different attitude for dealing with a powerful government and a weak one. Such was the case with the French press during Bonaparte Napoleon's rule. When the European empire he had built collapsed, Napoleon is said to have lamented: "A year ago all Europe marched with us. Today all Europe marches against us." The press was in the ranks of those marching against Napoleon.

The opposite happens when those in rule wield great power. When Napoleon escaped from his exile on Elba and marched past Grenoble and Lyon toward Paris, French newspapers constantly changed their editorial tones, depending on the distance between them and Napoleon. The absolute power that Napoleon once enjoyed and the power that today's politicians enjoy are not the same, of course. But there is no change in the way the press behaves when political power is great and when it begins to wane. The Korean press acted differently when the Kim Young-sam administration was in its heyday and when it was losing its grip on power, and the same thing is happening with the Kim Dae-jung administration.

Freedom of the press is a right that the members of the press have to fight to win and to defend. It is the instinct of those in power to try to suppress criticism by the press. Our Korean forefathers used a phrase called "the path of speech" to refer to the means of offering the king frank counsel. The idea acquired a political and cultural significance during the Yi Dynasty when the path of speech came to represent the antithesis of royal command, and also the freedom to give the king whatever advice was necessary.

Yi Yul-gok, one of the greatest statesmen in the history of the Choson Kingdom, thought keeping this path of speech open was essential for implementing ideal politics and said: "Success or failure depends on whether the path of speech is open or closed." He believed the fate of a kingdom hinged on whether government officials were free to speak their mind before the king to represent public opinions.

The person who grasped the significance of the advice the Choson scholar gave more than 400 years ago and used it in today's politics was then-opposition leader Kim Dae-jung. He used to give his calligraphic work to the members of the press, which read, "Success or failure of a nation depends on whether the path of speech is open or closed." As a dissident who had been waging a hard political struggle and a fight for democracy, he probably wrote it out of a deep longing for the press to report facts accurately and truthfully.

Mr. Kim is in the second half of his presidency. I would dearly like to know what he now thinks of what he wrote in the past.

In my opinion, two tendencies have become almost a foundation of the Korean press. The first is a tendency to collude with, and defer to, power. The other is a tendency to tirelessly pursue commercialism. It was not by accident that these two tendencies came to be deeply ingrained in the Korean press. They can be viewed as a mark of the years that the Korean press acquired in the history of its development. It is a general rule of journalism that journalists have to maintain an independent relationship with their news sources so that they can do justice to the public roles of the press.

Press reform has become an important agenda of civic society. Even members of the press seem to be in general agreement that they have to be reformed. They support the demands for reforms coming from within and outside the press in order to recover the severely eroded public confidence by undergoing a painstaking self-analysis and by practicing responsible journalism.

In pursuing press reforms at the beginning of new millennium, I believe we have to discard our stereotyped black-and-white concept that commercialism and market competition are the perpetual cause of press corruption. We should also look for an alternative for reforms in "transparent commercialism."

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